China’s neighboring nations held their breath when their new aircraft carrier, named Shi Lang (formerly Varyag of the Soviet Union) was revealed by the state media. While the carrier is still undergoing engine trials and has yet to install a proper catapult, it has yet to be able to launch any airplanes as it was designed for. So far it has been seen ferrying helicopters about and at present does not pose much of a threat. Many foreign navy personnel have been known to treat the news with derision, that they have “nothing to fear about a heavy helicopter cruiser”.
The carrier holds symbolic significance. Shi Lang is named after a Chinese admiral who conquered the Kingdom of Tungning (known today as Taiwan) in 1681. In the past, any plans for Chinese attempts at reunification with Taiwan were stymied by the poor capability of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and to launch a carrier with Shi Lang’s name on it is a clear gesture by People’s Republic that it still considers reunification a promise, not a mere threat. China has never fielded a successful navy since the Battle of Penghu of 1681.
This carrier is a certain cause for worry among neighboring nations. Though it may take 10 years for Shi Lang to go operational and be fully integrated into the PLAN, there are more carriers in the pipeline for new carrier battle groups. Taiwan is exceptionally threatened by the introduction of this new mode of power projection, and so are Japan and the Philippines. The smaller nations of Southeast Asia like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are similarly threatened due to China’s claims of the oil-rich Paracel and Spratly Islands.
China, despite its public statements and press releases has taken on a rather belligerent attitude towards its neighbors in Asia. While it is well-known in history that China for the millenia (except 19th – 20th century) had exerted its influence heavily in the region, it wants to reclaim that influence.
China depends on the freedom of movement in the South China Sea for trade, which benefits its economy. At present, that traffic exists because of Western institutions and consensus. The perceived ownership of the South China Sea lies in historical claims and the convenient fact that the Spratly Islands is potentially rich with oil.
It is likely that China will adopt the pragmatic, long-term view of controlling the South China Sea by undergoing hostilities with 3 different Southeast Asian nations (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia) as a short-term early phase: to bully them into submission by wielding its economic soft power and then proceed to establish its exclusive influence in the South China Sea. This strategy is very much in line the Chinese style of foreign policy often described as wei qi, a game of encirclement that places a premium on patience and subtlety.
For the past 5 years, despite the fading economy of the US and the cuts that its military faces it has consistently insisted on the desire to play an integral role in the maritime security of Asia. Should the US renege on that promise, it will be perceived as an act of weakness and trait of fair-weather friend. That will result in the loss of moral high ground for the US, and damage future trade and diplomatic relations.
It should be interesting to note that not all Asian nations are particularly receptive to the inevitable rise of China, and will want to continue to use US relations as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with China.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Map courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.